Sunday, June 5, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Love Suffers Long"

1 Kings 3:16-28

16 Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. 17 One of them said, “Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. 18 This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. 19 This woman’s son died one night when she rolled over him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. 21 When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn’t my son—not the baby I had birthed.” 22 The other woman said, “No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one.” But the first woman objected, “No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!” In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king. 23 The king said, “This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.’ The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.’ 24 Get me a sword!” They brought a sword to the king. 25 Then the king said, “Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman.” 26 Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, “Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don’t kill him,” for she had great love for her son. But the other woman said, “If I can’t have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half.” 27 Then the king answered, “Give the first woman the living newborn. Don’t kill him. She is his mother.” 28 All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God’s wisdom was in him so he could execute justice. (Common English Bible)

“The Dreaming Architect: Solomon, Son of David & Bathsheba, King of Israel,” Week Two

It’s a faith story, a testimony, an autobiography that I have heard many, many times from people in my wife’s generation—Generation X—and my generation, Generation Y, aka the Millennials.

It’s the story of being raised in an overly harsh or outright fundamentalist Christian church and household, and making a break for it as soon as you were an adult because of what the strictures did to you as a child. Fundamentalism can really do a number on a kid, warping their outlook and damaging their faith, and sometimes, it can manifest itself in funny—still sad—but funny ways.

Matthew Paul Turner, a Christian author, wrote about of those developments of his fundamentalist Christian upbringing—as a kid, he became obsessed with the number seven because of how often it is used in Scripture—seven days of creation, seven years that Jacob worked for Leah and then Rachel, seven baths Naaman had to take to be cleansed of leprosy, and so on. Fortunately for Matthew, his father, an uncommonly thoughtful man, intervened, prompting this aside from Turner in his memoir, “Churched:”

“I don’t know, Buck,” he said. “I think you’re taking those stories out of context, and I don’t want you to be disappointed when it doesn’t work out for you like it did for the people in the Bible.”

My father was one of the few fundamental Baptists I knew who actually valued context when reading the Bible. Most people took every word to heart. I knew people who, if there was a disagreement, searched for a way to apply King Solomon’s solution when forced to decide which of two mothers a baby belonged to.

“Maybe we should just cut this thing in two,” somebody suggested when two of my friends were arguing about which of them had brought the signed Cal Ripken Jr. baseball card to Sunday school.

However, both of them yelled, “No don’t cut it,” which wasn’t how the Bible story went. But Solomon’s wisdom still proved helpful, since the Sunday school teacher awarded the card to the kid who didn’t use an expletive when yelling.

The gist of Solomon’s wisdom, while maybe not useful for baseball cards, is what’s on tap for today!

This is a new sermon series for a new season in the church—spring is moving into summer, and just like a couple of years ago in 2014, when, if you’ll remember, we spent most of the summer reading verse-by-verse through the beginning of Acts, we’ll once again take on one big narrative in Scripture.

Only this time, that narrative will be the life and reign of King Solomon, a fascinating figure in Israelite history who has probably been somewhat mythologized and made into a King Arthur-esque national legend over the years, but who nonetheless represents an epoch centered around a singular truth that was not achieved again for hundreds of years, and then again for thousands: ruling over Israel as a unified and independent kingdom.

Believe it or not, a unified and independent Israel is a rarity in history. After Solomon, an independent and unified Israel would only really exist twice: during the short reign of the Maccabees (of whom you have probably heard via the Hanukkah story), and during present history since 1946.

So Solomon’s reign—and his father David’s before him—is unique. How Solomon is remembered matters because of it. And we’ll get a chance to read this dreaming architect’s story from his building of the original temple in Jerusalem to his eventual downfall and even more, beginning last week with the story of how Solomon comes by his divinely-bestowed wisdom for which he is eternally famous, and continuing today with Solomon applying that wisdom in this well-known story of two mothers.

And really, it’s a ghastly story, because (a) someone’s infant child has just died, and (b) one of the characters involved wants another infant child to likewise die. Forget everything you’re thinking about how misery loves company, the idea that a mother would want another child dead because hers also had died makes her something of a sociopath.

Which may have been Solomon’s intent all along—not simply to ascertain the biological mother of this child, but the emotional mother, the mother who is best equipped mentally and spiritually to raise this child.

And this, thankfully, is a story that is really about her and her example than about the type of person the other mother must have been to be willing to have an infant killed rather than given to another family.

Because the core of love, and especially love of family and of one’s children, goes to what Paul says first about love in 1 Corinthians 13—“love is patient” is how we typically hear that verse read, but there are two key facets we miss when doing so.

First, Paul isn’t speaking about romantic love, the sort of that is on display and celebrated at, say, a wedding, where you’ve almost certainly heard that passage read (there’s a reason why the movie Wedding Crashers made a joke about it, and if Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are making fun of it, you *know* it’s clich├ęd already).

No, Paul is talking about caritas, the sort of love that is utterly selfless. And that loops right into the second aspect of this text, that it doesn’t always get translated as “patient.” As the King James Version translates the verse, “love suffers long.”

Now, far be it for me to laud the KJV for accuracy in translation, because there are lot of issues with the text simply because, well, in the 1600s people knew far less about the Bible in its original languages than we do today.

But there really is something sublimely appropriate about the extremity and profundity of love’s sheer depth that gets conveyed by saying “love suffers long” rather than simply saying “love is patient.” The latter simply makes it sound like love can stomach a trip to the DMV, whereas the former at least gets at a trip to the DMV on the busiest day of the year and the place is understaffed.

To put a less trivial point on it: this second mother’s love for child is a love that is able to suffer long if that is what it takes for her child to live. She is the mother, Solomon says, and leaves it at that.

How accurate. She is not simply this child’s mother, but also the mother as an archetype, as a virtue, as a testament to parental love. She is the mother who would do anything for her child, even give them up, if need be. She is not just the mother, she is *the* mother, just like God is *the* Creator.

Because her love, like God’s love, can, will, and would suffer long.

Of course, it does not. Solomon rightly awards the child to her.

But I have to think that Solomon’s job would have been much harder if he had been presented with two loving parents disputing over a child, rather than one good parent and one obvious sociopath. I mean, if we’re going to scream, “No, don’t do that!” in response to the cutting up of a baseball card of all things, as Matthew Paul Turner’s story shows, then really, how many of us would go so far as to say yes to the cutting up of the flesh and blood of an actual human child?

To dwell on that question for too long is to, again, make this story about the wrong person. This is a story about love strong enough to suffer, and suffer at great length, and in this story, there is only one person who exhibits such love and only one person who recognizes such love for what it is.

It’s *the* mother. The mother who longs for her child. The mother who we might otherwise judge as a prostitute—it is so easy for us to do. After the death of Harambe, the gorilla in the Cincinnati zoo, at the hands of zoo security when a child fell into his enclosure, it seemed like all of us became armchair parents. It is so easy to judge parents and the job they do, so, so easy.

But we have to remember the depths of the love from which parents live as well, because that is a part of the depths of God’s love for us as God’s children.

I know not the true, full, and total depths of love, largely because I imagine such love, love that suffers long, has no limit, because such love is of God and, as 1 John writes, *is* God. And you or I will never be able to fully grasp the great scope and scale of God’s love.

Which is sort of the point of our faith in the end. We cannot see and understand fully what God sees and understands fully. So we take it on faith in God that God does and acts accordingly.

Even if sometimes, those actions might be contrary to what we want. Especially if those actions might be contrary to what we want.

I have no doubt that Solomon awarding this child to the other mother would have been contrary to every bone in the true mother’s body that made her plead for her child. It would not be what she had wanted.

But the child would have lived.

Such are the ways of God’s love for us, that even if we do not do as we ought, or choose as we ought, that God’s love is so great that God would still want us, need us, demand to us that we live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 5, 2016

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